Pope Francis’ document “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) is not a dense theological read. It is typically Francis – straightforward, often informal, calling us to something higher. The document is peppered with what you might call “Francis phrases” – striking phrases that tell a truth and leave an impression. One of my favorites is Francis’ reference to the “unruly freedom of the Word” (EG 22). That simple phrase captures the living nature of God’s Word: the inspiration that breathes life into it, the way it has its own movement and mission, and how it should not be – cannot be – controlled by human beings – not even in their own well-meaning interpretations and applications. We must accept that God’s Word “accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking” (EG 22).
Another of my favorite phrases from the document is: “the prolongation of the incarnation” (EG 179). First of all, it has a nice ring to it! And it rhymes just as nicely in Spanish (which I would imagine is the language Pope Francis was “thinking in”) as it does in English: la prolongación de la encarnación.
So what is the “prolongation of the Incarnation”? What does this poetic phrase mean? Francis writes: “God’s word teaches that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: ‘As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt. 25:40)” (EG 179). Pope Francis makes the point – and makes it crystal clear – that the Gospel message has implications for how we treat each other. The “prolongation of the Incarnation” simply means that Christ lives in every human being. That is one way he continues to be incarnate, continues to be with us. Therefore if we claim to love him, we must love them.
This is not a new idea, of course. It is an ancient idea. In addition to the words of Christ himself, I think of St. John, who the stories say told his own little flock “Love one another” so many times that his disciples got annoyed and asked him why he kept saying it. He answered, “If you do this, it is enough.” He did not say this because it didn’t matter if they loved God or not, but because in loving one another, they were loving God very well. John also wrote, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20). That’s another crystal clear way of saying: when you love your brothers and sisters, you prolong the Incarnation!